Shift Radio Montreal

Shift Radio shines a light on Montreal’s electronic music scene

The goal is to “highlight the abundance of quality and diversity in Montreal’s electronic music scene,” while spotlighting music “selected by people, not algorithms.”

For every bit of sheer misery and anguish this pandemic has brought us, some great ideas have also been borne from it. One of those ideas — in an industry that needs them now more than ever — is Shift Radio, a Montreal-based digital radio station looking to make an imprint on the city’s electronic scene one week at a time.

Every Friday, new showcases highlighting local electronic artists go online, with DJ sets taking place at the volunteer-run station’s home base at SAT before being uploaded to YouTube. As Shift Radio themselves put it, the goal is to “highlight the abundance of quality and diversity that can be found in Montreal’s electronic music scene,” while spotlighting artists’ music and artists “selected by people, not algorithms.”

Though the wheels for this online station with a Montréalais(e) twist were set in motion during the pandemic, inspiration first came from when co-founders Audrey Bélanger and Charles Rainville were visiting Belgium in 2019.

“Audrey was booked to do a couple of streams. I also knew a couple of people at a (station) called Kiosk Radio in Belgium,” says Rainville, who is also the station’s Director of Creative Content and Technologies, DJs under the name Splitshift, and is one half of distraction4ever. 

“We were really influenced by this radio station doing live stream podcasting from a park in Brussels. That’s where we got the idea. We also knew about other radio stations like The Lot Radio in New York, which we all played recently. When the pandemic hit, we felt it was a nice project to start in empty bars. As the project grew, we found a way to put it in context while it’s not the pandemic anymore. Now, we’re doing it half-live, half-live streamed at SAT.”

Bélanger — who’s also Shift Radio’s Director of Operations and Sponsorship and runs the front and back end of the station — says she and the Shift crew are fans of London’s NTS Radio. She’s also gained valuable experience in radio broadcasting, having hosted shows on and CHOQ. That said, she found the video streaming element of Shift Radio to be quite challenging.

“Charles learned how to do live streams with nothing,” she adds. “We started with an iPhone, which was crazy, but it was working. We had no equipment at all, but we managed to make it work… One time, we were broadcasting with (live stream technician Félix Gagnon-Paquin)’s iPhone. His grandmother was FaceTiming him during the stream. It was pausing. Now we have a GoPro, so we don’t have that issue anymore.”

As far as what separates Shift Radio from other similar online radio initiatives like the aforementioned NTS, or New York City’s Know Wave, Bélanger cites Shift’s goal to create an inclusive community for Montreal’s electronic music scene. 

“I don’t think we need to be that innovative. The city was missing this project,” she continues. “We didn’t have a live-stream video (channel) in Montreal… We can really put artists in the spotlight, and bookers and programmers can go on Shift Radio and be like, ‘We’re looking to book that kind of event.’ 

“They can listen, they can see the artists playing, and their presence on a stage. You can really make good bookings with that. From a local perspective, I think it’s really great… I’m not saying we’re doing something different, because we’re really inspired by [New York’s] The Lot Radio and Kiosk Radio.”

The station was launched in December 2020 (with its first stream going live in late January 2021), while lockdown continued wreaking havoc not only on our collective psyches, but on Montreal’s arts and culture landscape. Looking to be a “beacon of light” for music fans in an increasingly precarious climate for the industry, their live streams aim to unite music fans while also helping expose guest artists to larger audiences. 

Shift Radio was born out of a long-held desire Rainville had to start a radio station — something Bélanger shared, but felt was impossible and too daunting to get off the ground. 

“Even right now, I think we still need resources and people to work with us,” she continues. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. Sometimes, it’s really overwhelming. I feel like it’s to be taken day by day, and to see how it goes.”

Shift Radio’s launch party live stream went down at the chic Mile End bar Ping Pong Club (where several key figures for the station used to work) on January 28, 2021. However, its first official live stream took place the following week on February 5, with Robert Robert, ZANDOLI II and Esther Côté on the decks. Ping Pong gave the station permission to borrow their space, which had been empty and closed due to lockdown.

“We were so lucky to have that space. We had the keys, we could go there anytime. They had CDJs, which we didn’t have at the time — now, we do,” says Bélanger. “That was a big point, being like, ‘Oh, we can actually have a space and equipment, and we can organize this every week and be safe doing it,’ because it was COVID.” 

The people behind Shift Radio knew they had a great idea on their hands when the project launched, considering how bars at that time weren’t busy. An opportunity to DJ in the bars they’d frequent seemed tempting, but upon realizing how laborious it would be to constantly move equipment from one place to the next, they decided to pick one space and base themselves there.

Now that they’ve moved into SAT’s much wider space right downtown (a venue Bélanger describes as “iconic”, especially loving how SAT’s window lights prominently feature in each stream’s backdrop), it’s fair to say the station has come quite some way over the past two years. When the venue — whose former Communications and Project Manager, Anne-Célia Waddel, currently has that role with Shift Radio — approached Shift Radio to host their session space there, it felt like a moment where the station realized it was onto something. “We actually found a home,” says Rainville.

“We were like, ‘Let’s go, let’s do it forever.’ We were getting tired of moving around for free every Friday, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. moving stuff around. We said, ‘Shit, we could have our equipment at one place, keep it simple. It never was simple in the end, but more simple than moving (stuff around) this time.”

Shift Radio has also taught Bélanger, Rainville and co a lot about Montreal’s electronic music scene that they weren’t previously aware of, as well as helping them make connections that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Even the station’s newer volunteers like Adam Sibbald, who serves as Project Manager and Business Development Manager for the station, have noticed how steady the growth process has been.

“I’ve only been helping out with the radio for eight months,” says Sibbald, who had previously been a Shift Radio listener before getting involved with them. “But even the number of times where we’re doing the broadcast at SAT and somebody comes up and expresses interest in becoming a part of Shift or presenting on Shift, it really goes to show that there are so many people invested in this scene in Montreal. 

“It’s a very democratized outlet for them to do that. We’ve gotten a really good response from everybody. Each week, we’re booking new people, and there’s so much demand for what we’re offering.”

Hailing from Cochrane, AB (half an hour northwest of Calgary), Sibbald went to school in Vancouver, where he still visits back and forth. He’s already seen some positive feedback about Shift Radio from friends involved in Vancouver’s music scene.

“They’re really inspired by what Shift Radio is doing,” he continues. “People are always looking for that cool Internet radio (station). I think, in Canada, Shift is that. There’s a lot of demand for it, even outside Montreal.”

Not only do they have SAT onboard with the project (the venue has even offered them to do their streams at Dômesicle), Shift Radio has also partnered with Mate Libre. Getting the Yerba Mate beverage company’s support was another coup for the station — and not just for brand awareness, either.

“[They were] like ‘We think this project is so cool. What can we do to help you?’ I was like, ‘We need CDJs.’ And they bought us CDJs, which is pretty crazy,” says Bélanger. “They’d never made that kind of investment in a project, because they’re sort of a startup as well. But they were like, ‘We believe in that project, and we want to help,’ and they are.”

Two other notable collaborations for Shift last year were with Drummondville’s Festival JAIME, as well as the Festival BleuBleu in Gaspésie (more specifically Carleton-sur-Mer), one Bélanger said was “unexpected,” as she drinks coffee out of a mug from Gaspésie. “We’re really about bringing the Montreal music scene more to the suburbs,” she adds.

As far as Shift Radio’s plans for the rest of 2023, the station will focus on optimizing its programming, hiring new volunteers, improving their corporate structure, making merch, and hosting live events. Collaborations with some festivals this year have already been secured, too. 

Aside from the obvious long-term goal of eventually quitting their jobs to work for the station full-time, Shift Radio also hopes to eventually become a reference point for Montreal’s scene for listeners in Canada and around the world, similar to The Lot in New York and NTS and Rinse FM in London in that sense. But they don’t want to just limit themselves to one stream every Friday, either.

“We would like to have the bandwidth to do streams seven days a week,” says Rainville. “That would need a lot of work on our side, and we’d have to find out how we could do this. But it would be a goal, for sure.” ■

For more on Shift Radio and to listen to archived shows, please visit the Montreal digital station’s website.

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